The Radical Seed of Boko Haram

The Boko Haram sect exploits social inequality and widespread resentment to undermine the state – with the support of Al Qaeda. A report by Marc Engelhardt

By Marc Engelhardt

They are very well organised, professionally equipped and have no regard for human life: Boko Haram is overrunning Nigeria with a wave of deadly violence not seen in Africa's most populous nation for decades. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the radical Islamic movement is thought to have caused the deaths of at least 935 people between 2009 and the end of January 2012 – more than a quarter of those, 250, in January 2012 alone.

Boko Haram is responsible for carrying out coordinated attacks on the police, intelligence service and foreigners' authority in Kano, simultaneous attacks on several churches at Christmas in 2011, the attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja in late August 2011 and a terror campaign in Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria and neighbouring federal states that has endured for years and is being largely ignored by the international community.

Who are Boko Haram?

The terrorist movement sprung from a deep-rooted aversion to western influence and 're-education', which stretches back to the colonisation of the highly traditional Sokoto caliphate in the early 20th century.

photo: AP, dapd
The "Taliban" of Nigeria's trail of terror: A suicide attack on a UN office in Abuja on 26 August 2011 left 16 people dead

​​To this day, many inhabitants of the region do not send their children to state schools which they believe to be hostile to tradition – and they refuse for example to have their children immunised against polio, because they suspect that the immunisation programme is part of a western conspiracy.

Influenced by this, the Imam Mohammed Yusuf founded 'Boko Haram' in 2002, a religious movement that built among other things a mosque and a school on its premises. Although the sect did not initially attract attention, Yusuf pursued one goal from the outset: the establishment of a theocracy. Former pupils report that they had been educated to become Jihadists right from the start.

Many parents, many of them destitute, registered their children at the Boko Haram school – because of the aforementioned resentment, but also because they could not afford to send their children to a state school.

The fast-growing movement made its first foray out in the open in 2009, when its members stormed a number of police stations. Hundreds of people were killed, and the army and police launched a counterattack. Hundreds of suspected members were detained, among them Mohammed Yusuf, who died in unexplained circumstances soon after his arrest. Not only Boko Haram members believe that he was executed by police.

The government obviously hoped that this would nip the sect in the bud. But instead, the group remained underground and reformed – with the enthusiastic support of the terrorist network Al Qaeda.

Nigerian intelligence files published by the Wall Street Journal prove that Boko Haram fighters were trained in Afghan terror camps in 2007. Even in the year of its foundation 2002, Boko Haram fighters were allegedly being trained in Mauritania and later in Algeria. The report also claimed that Algerian Salafists, who renamed themselves 'Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb' after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, had taught the Nigerians battle tactics and bomb-making techniques.

The name 'Boko Haram' is derived from the Hausa language, and can be roughly translated as 'everything western (or: western education) is sinful'. The movement founded by Yusuf does however have an official name: 'Sunni Brotherhood in the Realisation of Holy War' – a nod to the true goals of the Jihadists.

A nation wakes up

photo: dpa
Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka: "We must not adopt the agenda of Boko Haram. Their aim is to have neighbours attacking each other"

​​A year after the death of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram landed its next coup. In September 2010, the extremists freed hundreds of alleged supporters arrested by police in 2009 and detained at Maiduguri prison. In late 2010 bombs were detonated in Jos, the city that has often been the scene of clashes between Muslim and Christian militia in the past. The bomb attacks were aimed at stoking this simmering conflict and causing it to boil over again resulting in fresh violence, civil war and eventually, the collapse of the nation itself.

One person who saw through Boko Haram's strategy at an early stage is the Nigerian Nobel Literature Prize winner Wole Soyinka. After the attacks in Kano in January 2012, he again called on his compatriots to refrain from retaliatory action. "We must not adopt the agenda of Boko Haram," says Soyinka. "Their aim is to have neighbours attacking each other."

The strategy would explain the attack on Christians on one of their most highly symbolic holidays in late 2011, and would also explain the Kano attacks. Shortly after the attacks, the organisation 'Ohanaeze Ndigbo' announced with good reason that the estimated three million members of the Ibo tribe would return to their traditional homeland in the southeast of the country.

"The Ibo perceive themselves as victims of a targeted terror campaign by the Boko Haram sect and no longer have faith in the protection of the police and the army," says the Society for Threatened Peoples' Africa reporter Ulrich Delius. The situation is horrifyingly similar to events in the mid-1960s, when pogroms against the Ibo in Kano triggered the Biafran War.

photo: EPA
"We will not fold our hands and watch as these enemies of democracy perpetrate an unprecedented evil in our land": Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan during a ceremony in Abuja

​​At the same time, Boko Haram's latest attacks are also a targeted provocation of the Nigerian state. It is likely that they are primarily meant to back up the mocking announcement made by Yusuf's successor Abubakar Shekau to Nigeria's President in late 2011: "Defeating us is beyond your powers, Jonathan."

President Goodluck Jonathan, who initially insisted following the Christmas 2011 attacks that Boko Haram would implode, has in the meantime recognised the true nature of the threat and is flexing his muscles.

"Those responsible will face the full wrath of the law," he said. "As a responsible government, we will not fold our hands and watch as these enemies of democracy perpetrate an unprecedented evil in our land." But indeed it would appear questionable whether the security forces are in a position to prevent civil war in the multi-ethnic nation of Nigeria, a country with more than 160 million inhabitants.

Who is supporting Boko Haram?

The (majority Muslim) north of Nigeria is the nation's poorest region. Unemployment is estimated at 40 percent, twice as high as in the (mainly Christian) south. Joblessness impacts most greatly on the youth, which constitutes more than half of the population. And this is a social group that is most vulnerable to radicalisation.

Map of Nigeria (source: DW)
Heartland of the radical Islamic Boko Haram: In recent years, the movement has stepped up attacks on churches in Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria

​​The political elite in the north, which has governed Nigeria for decades, is at any rate doing nothing. And it stokes the resentment against President Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta, who was voted in last April despite the fact that an unofficial agreement to alternate the presidency between north and south foresaw a Muslim leader.

The north was also forced to give up its claim on leadership of another traditional bastion, the military. All this means that the radical seeds of Boko Haram are therefore falling on highly fertile ground in many places. The extremists are also receiving support from the country's influential Mafioso networks, who are already doing very nicely out of the anti-terror war. A quarter of the Nigerian budget has now been earmarked for the military and police force: Sums of money running into the billions, much of which flows down to corrupt sections of Nigerian society.

While Jonathan's government tries to drain the corruption quagmire in some places, the 'godfathers' closely linked to the political sphere open up new cash sources. To ensure that these sources remain fluid, Boko Haram has to remain a threat and is supported accordingly. If civil war should indeed break out, the situation threatens to spiral out of control for good.

There is a real chance of a coup within the army itself, where many northern Nigerians are disappointed at what they see as weak leadership and the growing influence of generals from the south.If this does happen, it would bring Boko Haram a huge step closer to its goal – to cause chaos and establish a theocracy on the ruins of the nation.

Marc Engelhardt

© 2012

The veteran Africa correspondent Marc Engelhardt lives in Geneva and works as a UN reporter and analyst.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/